Our recent 5 hour layover in Tokyo notwithstanding, we’ve not spent time in Japan, but we understand that when you ride the Tokyo subway you are expected to maintain complete and respectful silence. If you utter as much as a snide harrumph, Japanese officials will forcibly remove you from the subway and brutally chastise you with chopsticks. For multiple offenses, you may be subjected to an even worse penalty: being made to watch Japanese television for an hour.
The Japanese are renowned for their politeness. We joke about our own inexplicable behavior in thanking toll booth attendants who’ve just levied a fee against us for doing nothing more than letting us use their roads, not to mention thanking the highway patrolman who writes us a ticket (at least us Southerners exhibit this sort of unwarranted polite gratitude). But I suppose when a Japanese person transits the Florida Turnpike, they actually get out of their car and bow to the attendant, and if they get a speeding ticket they offer to polish the trooper’s shoes.
But, and here’s where our lack of understanding begins, take those same wonderfully polite people out of Tokyo subways and put them into a museum like the Louvre and they are practically guaranteed to come stand directly between you and the piece of art you are admiring. Put them in any sort of queue seeking admittance to something and they will crowd you, shoulder to shoulder, out of their way. Let the younger of their society, usually the teen and twenty-something girls (you can’t call them Millenials because they don’t use our calendar, do they?) into a church or somewhere similarly deserving dignified behavior, and they are certain to rush the altar, the sacred bones of Saint Bubba, or the holiest relics of Travelism–whatever–and take a selfie while making a peace sign. But they do these things silently, and with utmost respect.
I apologize for picking on the Japanese. All peoples have their social oddities, for good or ill, and the quirks are especially acute when you plop them down into the midst of other cultures. We Americans have forged our own stereotypes throughout the rest of the world. Strike up a conversation with the American in the airplane seat next to you, for example, and before you’ve reached your destination they will have told you their life story, including their credit score and the unfortunate I.Q.’s of their boomerang children. Compete with an American (a New Yorker, to be precise) for a cab and you take your life into your own hands. And tell an American that tipping is customary, no matter the activity (“Honestly, Billy Bob, here in Berzerkistan, you should tip the homeless at least 10,000 Berzerki Blats for good service.”), they will gladly whip out a random amount, sometimes more and sometimes less, and then wonder if tipping was truly necessary.
The conundrum for travelers is that travel, by nature, takes you out of the normal and into the extraordinary. Granted, if you’re traveling only from Manhattan to Jersey the difference may be minimal (okay, that’s actually a bad example, but you get the idea), so “extraordinary” is relative. How do you prepare to “not be a putz” when you touch down in Berzerkistan? How do you carry incessant, universal politeness wherever you go?
You have to agree that we are “well traveled”. Still, of all the travel we’ve done, of all the reading and studying and conversations with locals and fellow travelers alike, we still don’t have a clue whether you should tip a waiter in Paris. So, we hedge, and leave a minuscule amount, sometimes on our chairs or on the floor so as to appear that we dropped or forgot it. Or maybe not. Perhaps Parisian servers enjoy that little bit of mystery.
In a public place, like a foreign subway, we take our cues from other passengers or locals nearby. If they are silent and gloomy, we stay quiet and try to appear gloomy, perhaps even moody or morose. If they are talkative and cheery, regardless of their language, well then Lori and I just jabber on and on in Pig Latin and laugh and laugh. If there’s a panhandler, we follow him around and ask people for money too (this, we admit, is one of our secrets to affording perpetual travel).
When visiting a tourist site like a museum, we apply the Golden Rule. Which is, “he who has the gold makes the rules.” If we don’t get our way, we just whip out some greenbacks. Sometimes we are asked to leave, sometimes not; that’s the excitement of travel. I jest, of course; greenbacks always work. Throw enough of them around and you’re never asked to leave. Ah, the look on a Japanese lady’s face when she steps between you and the Mona Lisa and you tap on her shoulder, pass her some moolah, and thumb her out of your way. It’s precious, worth way more than the twenty-five cents it costs you.
In all seriousness, there’s one critical unspoken rule of travel: never underestimate the power of a smile. When you realize you’ve accidentally been a putz, a smile says “oops” in any language. I can’t tell you how many times a smile and friendly conversation has gotten an overweight bag checked in without question. And of course, a smile is always the best start to an interesting conversation, perhaps even a lifelong friendship. For that matter, a smile might be all that you can communicate to someone: everyone understands a smile.
A smile: the universal travel dinero.